Climate Change

What is 'irrecoverable carbon' and how do we protect the ecosystems that store it?

A break in some mangroves trees reveals a passageway to the sea.

All kinds of ecosystems — lush rainforest, muddy peatland, shady mangroves — contain eons of stored carbon. Image: Dan Maisey / Unsplash

Monica Noon
Senior Manager, Data Science for Resilience, Conservation International
Allie Goldstein
Director, Climate Protection, Conservation International
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  • Certain areas are uniquely important carbon vaults: the Amazonian canopy; the Congo Basin; and the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest to name a few.
  • If destroyed, these ecosystems could take decades or centuries to regenerate.
  • How then do we protect the vital lands that prevent our atmosphere from smothering us?

Throughout this past summer, wildfires ravaged forests from California to Siberia, devastating wildlife, and turning entire communities to dust. But as affected countries deal with the visible damage, the whole world will have to reckon with an unseen consequence for decades to come: a massive release of greenhouse gas.

It’s easy to forget that the ground beneath us contains far more than just dirt, even in some of Earth’s most rugged environments. All kinds of ecosystems — lush rainforest, muddy peatland, shady mangroves — contain eons of stored carbon, captured by photosynthesis. Worldwide, there are about 730 gigatons of manageable carbon locked away in nature; and if disturbed by fire, agriculture, or development, these stores can vanish, sending long-stored emissions right back into the air. As humanity works to prevent runaway climate change, this kind of unplanned expense could quietly bust our carbon budget.

To better understand how these carbon reserves are distributed worldwide, our team of researchers used advanced satellite data to comb every ecosystem on Earth. We found that certain areas are uniquely important carbon vaults: the Amazonian canopy; the rich peatlands of the Congo Basin and Northern Europe; and in North America, the mangrove swamps of the Everglades and old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Per square kilometer, these are among the most effective carbon stores in the world; but they’re also some of the most difficult to restore. If destroyed, these ecosystems could take decades or centuries to regenerate. In other words, the 139 gigatons of carbon contained in these areas are effectively irrecoverable if released — humans would not be able to capture it all in time to avoid climate catastrophe.

In many regions, destruction is already underway.

Extractive industries like mining and oil aren’t just major polluters — they’re also expanding their environmental footprint by disturbing irrecoverable carbon reserves. When left unchecked by governments, companies are clearing undeveloped lands for timber, mining, palm oil, and cattle ranching. All the while, 75 countries around the world have relaxed laws around protected areas in recent years, opening an area as large as Mexico to heavy industry. Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park — one of the country’s largest carbon stores — is open to oil drilling, threatening ecosystems with infrastructure expansion. Across the Pacific, coastal mangroves — among the most effective natural carbon stores on the planet — are being converted into shrimp ponds at alarming rates.

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When these high-carbon habitats are threatened, so are we. Think of emissions like a household budget. To maintain a two-thirds chance of keeping global warming below 1.5°C, humanity can only afford to convert an additional 109 gigatons of carbon to CO2. That’s less than all the irrecoverable carbon on the planet, and many times less than all the carbon stored by nature. Already, humans must halve emissions each decade to meet our necessary benchmarks — and that task is made much more difficult when we release additional carbon stored in nature.

In just the past decade, we’ve lost at least four gigatons of irrecoverable carbon, and as global temperatures continue to rise, we risk igniting a devastating feedback loop. Forest fires will burn hotter and longer. Sea-level rise, intensifying storms and ocean acidification will destroy vital coastal ecosystems. And as northern latitudes grow warmer, new agricultural opportunities could put another 18 gigatons at risk.

But there’s reason for optimism: This is a rare scenario in which we have time to prevent disaster before it happens. Because these reserves are relatively concentrated, targeted action can yield huge returns for humanity’s future. Half of the world’s irrecoverable carbon is stored within just 3.3% of the planet’s land — about 4.9 million square kilometers, the combined area of Mexico and India.

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How do we protect the vital lands that prevent our atmosphere from smothering us? The first step is knowing where they are. Check.

Second, we need to understand who’s managing that land, and how they’re doing it. Often, the answer is Indigenous Peoples and local communities, who oversee more than a third of Earth’s irrecoverable carbon reserves — and those are just government-recognized territories. Expanding the land rights of these groups, who have been stewarding these ecosystems for generations, is essential to everyone’s survival. Another 15% of Earth’s land, and 23% of its irrecoverable carbon, is protected by governments, and world leaders will soon meet to negotiate a plan to hit 30% by 2030. By prioritizing our best natural carbon capture machines in those agreements, we can maximize their climate impact.

And finally, we need to train a new generation of mechanics for those machines: wildlife managers that know native species, hydrologists that know local streams, climatologists that know how to adapt, and investors that know how to make conservation financially viable.

That is what true climate resilience looks like: not only equipping landscapes, cities, and institutions to deal with a changing Earth, but also training a new generation of stewards who will leave our planet better than they found it. It’s their ingenuity that will inspire new advances and solutions — and their passion that will power us through tough times like these.

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